Sermon Sparks

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Pesach – 5th cup


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Spark: On Passover, we recall the 4 words of redemption in the Torah that correspond to the 4 cups of wine we drink. However, there are actually five words of redemption, which should correspond to the fifth cup. The fifth word of redemption is והבאתי – I will bring you [to the land of Israel]. Most Jews in the world today are safe from oppression, discrimination, slavery, etc. But our redemption is not complete until we are brought to Israel. Does redemption only come when we are literally brought to Israel to live there or can we bring ourselves to Israel in different ways? What still needs to be brought to Israel to make our redemption complete?


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Rabbis’ Sermon Sparks for Pesach – Doubt…


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Spark: Taking the Jewish people from Egypt purposefully put the Jewish people into situations that would be incredibly challenging. This is to teach us that any worthwhile, meaningful endeavor, like taking the Jews from Egypt or creating a State of Israel, will by nature come with significant challenge. We are called to face these challenges with courage and integrity.


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Key Texts:


Exodus: 13-17 –

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them on the road through the Philistine country, though that was shorter.

יז וַיְהִי, בְּשַׁלַּח פַּרְעֹה אֶת-הָעָם, וְלֹא-נָחָם אֱלֹהִים דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּים, כִּי קָרוֹב הוּא

Exodus 14:8 –

The LORD hardened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, so that he pursued the Israelites.

ח וַיְחַזֵּק יְהוָה, אֶת-לֵב פַּרְעֹה מֶלֶךְ מִצְרַיִם, וַיִּרְדֹּף, אַחֲרֵי בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל;

Exodus 15:24 –

Then Moses led Israel from the Red Sea and they went into the Desert of Shur. For three days they traveled in the desert without finding water.

כב וַיַּסַּע מֹשֶׁה אֶת-יִשְׂרָאֵל מִיַּם-סוּף, וַיֵּצְאוּ אֶל-מִדְבַּר-שׁוּר; וַיֵּלְכוּ שְׁלֹשֶׁת-יָמִים בַּמִּדְבָּר, וְלֹא-מָצְאוּ מָיִם.

Exodus 17:8 –

The Amalekites came and attacked the Israelites at Rephidim.

ח וַיָּבֹא, עֲמָלֵק; וַיִּלָּחֶם עִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל, בִּרְפִידִם.

In gematria, Amalek is the numerical equivalent to safek, doubt.



Why does God over and over put the Jewish people into these difficult situations? Why does God lead the Jewish people on a crooked path out of Egypt? Bring Pharoah back? Not provide adequate provisions? Allow for Amalek, the embodiment of doubt, to attack? There is a lesson here: God wanted the Jewish people to know and experience profound challenges as they embarked on their spiritual and historic mission. That is true today in the building of the State of Israel. Each of these encounters represents a different kind of challenge we have experienced in building the State of Israel.

The crooked path might represent competing ideas and approaches, many never reconciled, about what Israel should be.

  • Pharoah represents external enemies and military attacks.
  • Lack of food and water represents scarce resources.
  • Amalek represents doubt.

These challenges, however, are not signs of failure. Rather, they may be important steps for us to take as a people to grow morally, economically, militarily, Jewishly, etc.


Modern Context:

Choose a challenge/setback that Israel has faced over the last 60 years, whether military, political, economic, or spiritual. See if you can find a way that facing that challenge has created a stronger Israel moving forward.




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Spark: The Omer represents the process of Jewish history unfolding. It is a time we journeyed as a people from slavery, to freedom, and to being in covenant with God. But the Omer journey didn’t just happen in the Torah: important events in our history and of Israel happen during this auspicious time. It is a time of appreciating that journey, and looking forward to the next step.

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Acharei Mot


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Spark: According to the Torah, Israel does not belong to the Jewish People. Our presence there is contingent on our moral behavior. We must not take the land for granted and remember that our presence there is not guaranteed.


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Spark: It is easy to become accustomed or numbed to the awe that is the existence of a State of Israel. We must find ways to not lose sight of its tremendous importance.


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Key Text:


[Explaining the reason for sacrifices] The entire intent was to inspire awe in those who turned to the Temple, that they see it and be fearful, as it is said, “You shall … venerate My sanctuary” (Lev. 19:30; 26:2). When a person frequents a place, its impact on his soul diminishes, and he gradually is less awed by it… Since the objective was to maintain this sense of awe, the Almighty cautioned those who are unclean against entering the Sanctuary, by stipulating many sorts of uncleanness, to the extent that hardly a person turns out to be clean, save for a very few.

 Maimonides, Guide for the Perplexed, Part III, ch. 47




Many of us struggle to connect with the ideas around purity and impurity we find in Vayikra. What does it have say to us in our world today? What was the point back then, and is all this still relevant now?

According to the Rambam, the laws of tumah and tahara served to protect against routine and the loss of impact for the Temple, a sacred place.

In relating to Israel, especially when we frequent it often in person, on the news, or in conversation, our sense of its importance, its awe-inspiring qualities, might easily be diminished. The tremendous historical, religious, and spiritual meaning and awe that should come along with a Jewish state after 2000 years of exile can be lost. Perhaps we can use the Rambam’s approach, that we might create different systems to continually inspire our awe and amazement towards the State of Israel.


Modern Context:


Echoes of the Shofar:

Today, blowing shofar at the Kotel is an everyday occurrence. A Jewish presence at the Western wall is taken for granted. Watching videos and hearing stories like this are ways we can instill wonder and awe for everything that Israel represents.




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Spark: Israel is the place where Jewish physicality and spirituality meet.


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Ki Tissa


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Is Peace Always the Ideal?

Spark: Aaron is one of the most beloved figures in Jewish tradition, especially because of his dedication to creating peace. Peacemaking is hard. Aaron has many successes in this area. However, like all biblical leaders, his successes are not universal. In this week’s parasha, we seee how complicated peacemaking is and how sometimes we need to step back and examine our motives for creating peace.

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Behaalotcha (Moses’ leadership)


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Spark: Israel faces many threats. External threats often bring us together. Internal threats, however, can rip us apart. At times when internal conflict rages, our natural inclination is to distance ourselves. However, those are actually the times to draw closest.


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Behaalotcha is a parasha that details many troubles that face the Jewish people on their way to the land of Israel. They include:

  • Eldad and Madad, renegade prophets, challenging Moshe’s authority (Numbers: 11:26).
  • The children of Israel murmuring against God and Moses, complaining about a lack of meat. (Numbers 11:20)
  • Miriam and Aaron speaking lashon hara, gossip, against Moses (Numbers 12:1)

These conflicts present a moment of great crisis and threat for Moses. They have been through many crises before: Pharaoh’s army, enemy kings, the harsh desert. However, these threats have all been external. The threats in this parasha are different. The insubordination, complaint, conflict, and betrayal that occur in this parasha are all internal.

Key Text

In the middle of these internal struggles, we find the following verse in the Torah:

“Moses then re-entered the camp, he and the elders of Israel” (Numbers 11:29).

Rav Simcha Bunim in his commentary, Likkutim Hadashim, parashat Behaalotcha, says:

“This comes to teach us that in a time of distress, Moshe did not flee. Rather, he stayed inside the camp of Israel, to hear the distress, and did not separate from them.”

Modern Application

It’s easy to rally when threats to Israel are external. But what about when the threats are internal? Jews fighting other Jews? J-Street vs. AIPAC? Hareidim vs. Seculars? Perhaps those are the times when we must follow Moshe’s leadership and fully engage ourselves in the fate of the nation, rather than pulling away.

Israel Conversion Bill A Hard Sell To U.S. Jews

Anger Over Arrest at Kotel Of Woman Carrying Torah



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Spark: What happens when an ideal fails to live up to our dreams? The Torah describes the Nazir, someone who removes himself from society in order to be holy. However, the Torah says that the Nazir has committed a sin. That sin is a refusal to engage in the problems of society and to try and make them better.



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Key Text:

The description of the Nazir: Numbers Chapter 6:1-22

Numbers 6:14

יד וְהִקְרִיב אֶת-קָרְבָּנוֹ לַיהוָה כֶּבֶשׂ בֶּן-שְׁנָתוֹ תָמִים אֶחָד, לְעֹלָה, וְכַבְשָׂה אַחַת בַּת-שְׁנָתָהּ תְּמִימָה, לְחַטָּאת; וְאַיִל-אֶחָד תָּמִים, לִשְׁלָמִים.

14 and he shall present his offering unto the LORD, one he-lamb of the first year without blemish for a burnt-offering, and one ewe-lamb of the first year without blemish for a sin-offering, and one ram without blemish for peace-offerings.

Framing: Why does the Nazir have to bring a sin offering?

Two conflicting opinions – the Rambam and the Ramban.

The Ramban (Nachmanides) in his commentary on Naso suggests that the nazir needs to bring the sin-offering because he is committing the sin of ending his nezirut. The act of becoming a nazir was a positive one: he left behind the excesses and trappings of the world and entered a more separate, elevated way of life. The return to his normal status is a sin he must atone for.

On the other hand, the Rambam (Maimonides), in Mishneh Torah: Mada, Deot 3:1-4 says that the Nazir’s sin offering is a sign that he has done something wrong. Nezirut represents cutting oneself from society and the Nazir must atone once the process is completed.

What is the Nazir rejecting?

The Nazir is rejecting society’s ills. Wine symbolizes temptation and frivolity. Hair represents vanity and ego. Dead bodies represent death and decay.

Israel is today the most robust, powerful and vibrant Jewish society on the planet. What do we do when we encounter its underside? The trappings of power, the potential for corruption, violence and death are often on full display. Scandal, corruption, and violence are often on full display.

As members of the Jewish people with a profound connection to Israel, how do we respond? Disengage? Retain our own moral highground?

The Ramban, using the Nazir as a model, might say that when we encounter these issues we should pull away, remove ourselves, and maintain our own moral purity. However, the Rambam would say that disengaging is wrong. We must seek and engage with problems and not just sit back, removed. Our own moral purity is worth very little if we have not had any effect on the greater whole. We must choose between the Rambam and the Ramban’s approaches.

Contemporary Applications

One issue that was very distressing to world Jews in the last decade was the sudden increase in sex-trafficking through Israel. Pressure from groups trying to stop trafficking in Israel from all over the world helped stop this problem.

Traffickers target Israeli girls to replace foreign sex slaves: Success in combating the import of women for sex in Israel has led traffickers to recruit local girls.

At the start of the new century, Israel found itself with an unexpected and unwanted reputation – as a destination hotspot for sex trafficking. The government took significant measures against this phenomenon, but the success in stamping out the import of women for sex has led to a new problem.



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Spark: The Jewish tradition has profound things to say about environmentalism and sustainability. Those ancient ideas and values are being given new life and expression in today’s State of Israel.




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Consciousness about the environment and our responsibility to it seems to be a recent phenomenon. However, this kind of consciousness is very ancient, and very Jewish. One of the reasons for founding the State of Israel was to bring this ancient wisdom to fruition.


Key Text: Leviticus 25:1-18


ב  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם, כִּי תָבֹאוּ אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי נֹתֵן לָכֶם–וְשָׁבְתָה הָאָרֶץ, שַׁבָּת לַיהוָה.ג  שֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְרַע שָׂדֶךָ, וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים תִּזְמֹר כַּרְמֶךָ; וְאָסַפְתָּ, אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ.ד  וּבַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִת, שַׁבַּת שַׁבָּתוֹן יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ–שַׁבָּת, לַיהוָה:  שָׂדְךָ לֹא תִזְרָע, וְכַרְמְךָ לֹא תִזְמֹר.ה  אֵת סְפִיחַ קְצִירְךָ לֹא תִקְצוֹר, וְאֶת-עִנְּבֵי נְזִירֶךָ לֹא תִבְצֹר:  שְׁנַת שַׁבָּתוֹן, יִהְיֶה לָאָרֶץ.ו  וְהָיְתָה שַׁבַּת הָאָרֶץ לָכֶם, לְאָכְלָה–לְךָ, וּלְעַבְדְּךָ וְלַאֲמָתֶךָ; וְלִשְׂכִירְךָ, וּלְתוֹשָׁבְךָ, הַגָּרִים, עִמָּךְ.ז  וְלִבְהֶמְתְּךָ–וְלַחַיָּה, אֲשֶׁר בְּאַרְצֶךָ:  תִּהְיֶה כָל-תְּבוּאָתָהּ, לֶאֱכֹל.  {ס}ח  וְסָפַרְתָּ לְךָ, שֶׁבַע שַׁבְּתֹת שָׁנִים–שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים, שֶׁבַע פְּעָמִים; וְהָיוּ לְךָ, יְמֵי שֶׁבַע שַׁבְּתֹת הַשָּׁנִים, תֵּשַׁע וְאַרְבָּעִים, שָׁנָה.ט  וְהַעֲבַרְתָּ שׁוֹפַר תְּרוּעָה, בַּחֹדֶשׁ הַשְּׁבִעִי, בֶּעָשׂוֹר, לַחֹדֶשׁ; בְּיוֹם, הַכִּפֻּרִים, תַּעֲבִירוּ שׁוֹפָר, בְּכָל-אַרְצְכֶם.י  וְקִדַּשְׁתֶּם, אֵת שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה, וּקְרָאתֶם דְּרוֹר בָּאָרֶץ, לְכָל-יֹשְׁבֶיהָ; יוֹבֵל הִוא, תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם, וְשַׁבְתֶּם אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ, וְאִישׁ אֶל-מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ תָּשֻׁבוּ.יא  יוֹבֵל הִוא, שְׁנַת הַחֲמִשִּׁים שָׁנָה–תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם; לֹא תִזְרָעוּ–וְלֹא תִקְצְרוּ אֶת-סְפִיחֶיהָ, וְלֹא תִבְצְרוּ אֶת-נְזִרֶיהָ.יב  כִּי יוֹבֵל הִוא, קֹדֶשׁ תִּהְיֶה לָכֶם; מִן-הַשָּׂדֶה–תֹּאכְלוּ, אֶת-תְּבוּאָתָהּ.יג  בִּשְׁנַת הַיּוֹבֵל, הַזֹּאת, תָּשֻׁבוּ, אִישׁ אֶל-אֲחֻזָּתוֹ.יד  וְכִי-תִמְכְּרוּ מִמְכָּר לַעֲמִיתֶךָ, אוֹ קָנֹה מִיַּד עֲמִיתֶךָ–אַל-תּוֹנוּ, אִישׁ אֶת-אָחִיו.טו  בְּמִסְפַּר שָׁנִים אַחַר הַיּוֹבֵל, תִּקְנֶה מֵאֵת עֲמִיתֶךָ; בְּמִסְפַּר שְׁנֵי-תְבוּאֹת, יִמְכָּר-לָךְ.טז  לְפִי רֹב הַשָּׁנִים, תַּרְבֶּה מִקְנָתוֹ, וּלְפִי מְעֹט הַשָּׁנִים, תַּמְעִיט מִקְנָתוֹ:  כִּי מִסְפַּר תְּבוּאֹת, הוּא מֹכֵר לָךְ.יז  וְלֹא תוֹנוּ אִישׁ אֶת-עֲמִיתוֹ, וְיָרֵאתָ מֵאֱלֹהֶיךָ:  כִּי אֲנִי יְהוָה, אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.יח  וַעֲשִׂיתֶם, אֶת-חֻקֹּתַי, וְאֶת-מִשְׁפָּטַי תִּשְׁמְרוּ, וַעֲשִׂיתֶם אֹתָם–וִישַׁבְתֶּם עַל-הָאָרֶץ, לָבֶטַח.

1 And the LORD spoke unto Moses in mount Sinai, saying: 2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them: When ye come into the land which I give you, then shall the land keep a sabbath unto the LORD. 3 Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather in the produce thereof. 4 But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land, a sabbath unto the LORD; thou shalt neither sow thy field, nor prune thy vineyard.  5 That which groweth of itself of thy harvest thou shalt not reap, and the grapes of thy undressed vine thou shalt not gather; it shall be a year of solemn rest for the land. 6 And the sabbath-produce of the land shall be for food for you: for thee, and for thy servant and for thy maid, and for thy hired servant and for the settler by thy side that sojourn with thee; 7 and for thy cattle, and for the beasts that are in thy land, shall all the increase thereof be for food. 8 And thou shalt number seven sabbaths of years unto thee, seven times seven years; and there shall be unto thee the days of seven sabbaths of years, even forty and nine years. 9 Then shalt thou make proclamation with the blast of the horn on the tenth day of the seventh month; in the day of atonement shall ye make proclamation with the horn throughout all your land. 10 And ye shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family. 11 A jubilee shall that fiftieth year be unto you; ye shall not sow, neither reap that which groweth of itself in it, nor gather the grapes in it of the undressed vines. 12 For it is a jubilee; it shall be holy unto you; ye shall eat the increase thereof out of the field. 13 In this year of jubilee ye shall return every man unto his possession. 14 And if thou sell aught unto thy neighbour, or buy of thy neighbour’s hand, ye shall not wrong one another. 15 According to the number of years after the jubilee thou shalt buy of thy neighbour, and according unto the number of years of the crops he shall sell unto thee. 16 According to the multitude of the years thou shalt increase the price thereof, and according to the fewness of the years thou shalt diminish the price of it; for the number of crops doth he sell unto thee. 17 And ye shall not wrong one another; but thou shalt fear thy God; for I am the LORD your God. 18 Wherefore ye shall do My statutes, and keep Mine ordinances and do them; and ye shall dwell in the land in safety.

Supporting Texts

Devarim 11:10: “For the Land to which you come, to possess it – it is not like the land of Egypt that you left, where you would plant your seed and water it on foot like a vegetable garden.  But the Land to which you cross over to possess it, is a Land of hills and valleys, from the rain of heaven will it drink water, a Land that Hashem, your G-d, seeks out; the eyes of Hashem, your G-d are always upon it, from the beginning of the year to year’s end.”

Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Kings, 6 Laws 8-10: It is forbidden to cut down fruit bearing trees outside a besieged city, nor may a water channel be deflected from them so they wither…. The penalty is imposed not only during a siege but rather anyone who cuts down a fruit bearing tree in a destructive manner is flogged…And not only trees, but anyone who smashes household goods, tears clothing, demolishes a building, stops a spring, or wastes articles of food in a destructive manner, is in violation of the command “you shall not destroy.”

Sefer HaChinuch, Parshat Shoftim, Mitzvah 529: “The root of the Mitzvah (Bal Tashchit) is well known – that it is to teach our souls to love the Good and the Greater Value and to cling to it.  Therefore we should attach ourselves to the good and distance ourselves from anything that is bad and any type of destruction.  This is the path for Hasidim (Righteous People) and People of Good Deeds – who love Peace and are happy with the goodness of the Creation and draw themselves close to Torah.  They do not ever waste anything, even a kernel of mustard.  They should fashion themselves in such a way that any wastefulness or destruction that they see – if they are able to (save) prevent it – they should save it from all forms of destructiveness with all their energy.”


Modern Application to Israel


The relationship between the Jewish People and the earth is central to the Jewish tradition. The creation story in Genesis highlights our responsibility to take care of the earth, most of our holidays have strong agricultural connections, and there is a wealth of Jewish law and narrative about caring for the environment. Israel has always been praised by Jews for its natural beauty and resources. Here are two examples of Jewish organizations applying these ancient values in modern day Israel.

Leket Israel was founded in 2003 to rescue excess, nutritious food that would have otherwise been destroyed and redirected  to people in need. They have become Israel’s umbrella organization for donations of surplus food, with a committed lineup of volunteers and staff members providing more than 110 tons of food per week to over 230 soup kitchens, homeless shelters, senior citizen centers and other social service organizations around Israel.

In 1997, Green Course was founded by a group of students that looked around and thought that there wasn’t a significant environmental movement in Israel. They started under the auspices of the SPNI (Society for Preservation of Nature in Israel) by opening Green Course chapters on 4 campuses, and within a few years there were chapters across the country. It went on to become the leading platform for volunteering for the environment in Israel.

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